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A Conversation with Kenneth Pomeranz

Tom Laichas


Figure 1

Kenneth Pomeranz



     Best known for The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Global Economy (Princeton University Press, 2000), Kenneth Pomeranz is professor of history at the University of California Irvine and co-editor of the Journal of Global History. Other works include The World That Trade Created: Society, Culture, and the World Economy, 1400 to the Present, written with Steven Topik (M.E. Sharpe, 2005), and The Making of a Hinterland: State, Society and Economy in Inland North China, 1853-1937 (University of California Press, 1993).1

In Great Divergence, Pomeranz strongly cautions finding the seeds of its future industrialization in medieval England's cultural and intellectual endowments, or blaming China's alleged economic stagnation on "inward looking" Ming and Qing dynasties. According to his account, the economic trajectories of Eurasia's most advanced regions—England and the lower Yangzi River Delta—did not diverge substantially until at least the middle of the 18th century.

The Great Divergence has influenced accounts of Chinese and European economic history in many high school and college world history texts. At the same time, The Great Divergence has provoked considerable debate, debate which promises to enrich our understanding of the early modern world.2

WHC co-editor Tom Laichas spoke to Dr. Pomeranz in September 2007.

Tom Laichas: How did you get interested in history?

Kenneth Pomeranz: Partly through an interest in politics. I was born in 1958. So I was too little for the 1960s. But when you have an older sibling, you're least vaguely aware of something happening. And part of it also was growing up with parents who were refugees from Hitler. It was hard to miss that these things had to matter to me.

Then also, I had some very good teachers… especially in 8th grade Social Studies.

Laichas:     8th grade?

Pomeranz:     He came in the first day and said, you know, "Look: here are the tests and the paper topics. If you do all of this, and do it competently, you'll get a B…. But if you want a really good grade, then you'll have to do something else. Every week I will say things in class that will strike you as utterly outrageous. Some of them may be things I really believe. Some of them I might say just to get your goat. But if something strikes you as outrageous, you'll write a paper about it. You don't have to do this every week, but pick a couple of weeks when you were really ticked off, and tell me why I'm wrong.

     I happen to remember writing a paper in response to this outrageous notion that he'd come up with that the the Constitution's framers were just protecting their economic interests. Of course, I didn't know it at the time, but I can now look back and see that this was really Charles Beard's interpretation of the Constitution.     Essentially, he got us writing historiographic papers.

     If he'd come in and told us that there was this guy in the 1930s who said the Constitution was in the thrall of economic interests, the 8th graders would probably not have been terribly interested. Instead, he managed to play with the natural tendency of all thirteen-year-olds, which is to say, "Oh boy! I get to prove the teacher's an idiot! Sounds like fun!"

Laichas:     This was in New York?

Pomeranz:     This was a New York City public junior high school. I have the feeling that if you tried to do that in an average public junior high school today, you'd be asked, you know, how this relates to the standards.

Laichas:     Did you find that same kind of engagement in high school?

Pomeranz:     Not consistently, but often enough. I mean, once you're… thinking about those kinds of questions, even a teacher who doesn't take that kind of initiative won't throw it in your face and say "I don't want this!" They'll recognize you're doing a little bit more.

Laichas:     Where did you go from high school?

Pomeranz:     Cornell.

Laichas:     What attracted into the kind of history you're doing now—were you immediately attracted to Chinese history?

Pomeranz:     It was history generally that attracted me. I actually came to China late. In fact, I finished my senior year figuring I'd go to grad school in French or German history.

Laichas:     What happened?

Pomeranz:     In my last year at Cornell, I walked into a China course that I didn't have the prerequisites for. So I asked the professor whether I could come into the course if I did the background reading. He said, yeah—if you want to do that, go ahead. And it was among the best classes I've ever had at any level.

Laichas:     Who was the professor?

Pomeranz:     Sherm Cochran.3 So by late in the term, I was starting to think that if I really like doing this stuff so much, maybe this is what I ought to do [in grad school].

     Of course there were little obstacles—like the fact that I had no Chinese.

     But I went to Sherm and I said, "You know, I have this crazy idea [to switch to Chinese history]. But my graduate school applications are already in the mail, saying that I want to do either French or German history. What do you think?"

     And I got what I think was a very smart response. He gave me a list of the best fifteen books on China, and said "Read these over the summer, when no one is giving you a grade.... If you really go through all fifteen of them when no one's rewarding you for it, it probably means you really are interested…. If so, all of the places you've applied to graduate school have really good China programs. Go knock on the door of your professors, and tell them what you have in mind."

     So I wound up going to Yale. I knocked on Jonathan Spence's door, and he said, "Well, I do teach this one class [in which] all the reading is in English.4 Take it. Halfway or so through the year, we'll have a talk and see if your idea makes any sense. If it does…we'll try and find you some money so you can start cramming the language over the summer."

     That's pretty much the way it happened.

Laichas:     And the language?

Pomeranz:     I had English as a birthright, and passable French and German. I thought, if this doesn't work, I can always go back [to European history]. But if I don't learn Japanese or Chinese in my twenties, I'm not going to learn them later in life.

Laichas:     You picked up Japanese as well as Chinese?

Pomeranz:     Well, my Japanese is classical scholar's Japanese. I can read it, but when I'm in Japan I count on people speaking in English or occasionally Chinese. My speaking is just hopeless.

Laichas:     Were you attracted to Asian-European comparisons from the beginning?

Pomeranz:     Yeah, I was. I had a good background in European history. I can imagine going to grad school in political science or sociology and doing the Barrington Moore, Charles Tilly, Theda Skocpol kind of macro-historical sociology.5

Laichas:     Why did you get into economic rather than cultural comparisons?

Pomeranz:     I'm at the tail end of a generation that was interested in the origins of revolution in China. To do that, you do rural social history. You take a region of the North China plain, and try to figure out what's actually happening in people's lives materially.

     Behind that question, though, stood a desire to think about history in ways that seemed relevant to the vast numbers of truly poor people on the planet. That, I think, has stayed with me.

     I also think, to be honest, that we know how to do rigorous [economic] comparisons better than cultural comparisons.

     There's at least some extent to which a pound of cotton is a pound of cotton; that does make certain kinds of comparisons easier. It's much harder to think of cultural units that travel in the same way.

     But don't count me entirely out [of cultural history] just yet! I have a project on North China which has at least some comparative dimensions; someday I'll get back to writing it.

Laichas:     The subtitle of The World Trade Created is "Society, Culture, and the World Economy." To what degree do you see culture as independent from the economy? In which direction do cause-effect relationships work?

Pomeranz:     I think they work in both directions. It's just easier to see the ones going from economy to culture.

     But if there's one assumption of most mainstream economists that I would want to throw out the window, it would be that the prices of goods reflect a straightforward utility, that [the way we value goods] has no cultural content. It's pretty clear that … this is just not true.

     I mean, a plain white t-shirt with a CK for Calvin Klein on it doesn't keep you any warmer than one without the CK. But it sells for two or three times as much.

     Utility is a very complicated thing, and it's not precultural. This is a complicated world. You don't have time to get to know everybody, and so you use signals. And those signals include what you're wearing. So value is always culturally coded.

     Therefore the causal arrows have to run in both directions. That's part of what makes it all so interesting.

Laichas:     You wrote The World Trade Created just as economists were starting to write demystifying books for the general public, books like The Armchair Economist.6 Did you have this kind of work in mind when you started your own project?

Pomeranz:     We didn't have any model in mind at all.

     The way we actually started is that Steve [Topik]7 had a student who had left graduate school to become a journalist. He became editor of a magazine called World Trade, and was looking for copy. So he said to Steve, "I'll give you the back page of the magazine every month. We'll call it 'Looking Back'. You can write anything you want as long as it has something to do with the history of international trade."

     Steve did the column for a few months, and then he invited me in on it. After, I guess, six years or so, Steve said to me, "you know, I think we may have a book here."

     I have to admit I was skeptical. I wasn't sure there was enough of a common thread. It wasn't until the very end of the process that I was confident we had a book. Turned out that we had been more intellectually consistent than I would have guessed.

Laichas:     Are you surprised at the extent to which The World Trade Created has been a hit?

Pomeranz:     I was certainly surprised at first. I did not expect anything really big from this. I don't do it often enough, but I like trying to write for an audience that goes beyond my fellow academics.

Laichas:     Let's turn to The Great Divergence. You call 18th century England a "fortunate freak", a phrase that's picked up some currency. What makes it fortunate? Why is it a freak?

Pomeranz:     Well, it's a freak because something happened there that didn't really happen elsewhere for quite some time.

     There's been this tendency in the Europeanist literature starting maybe from the late 1960s or early 1970s to get away from the old Britain-first [model of industrialization]. N. F. R. Crafts has this essay called "Why was Britain First?"8 in which he summarizes a bunch of contrasts between England and France in the 17th century. But [Crafts argues] that you can't draw a convincing link between any of those contrasts and the fact that Britain industrialized first.

     I think there is something to be said for reinstating at least a bit of British exceptionalism. Sure, great portions [Europe] were experiencing growth and market development, as was much of East Asia and some other places… But it's not at all clear that [growth and markets] gets you an industrial revolution. An industrial revolution was something very different that involved, among other things, huge increases in energy use per capita, etcetera.

     All that happens in Britain a good half century before it happened anywhere else. And it's not at all clear that had it not happened in Britain, it would have happened anywhere else all that soon.

     So that's [how Britain is a] freak.

Laichas:     And why "fortunate"?

Pomeranz:     It's a combination of things. Yes, Britain had certain institutional and other kinds of arrangements that facilitated the industrial revolution. But they weren't sufficient without some other things, like the fortunate location of massive coal deposits. Or the supremacy of the Royal Navy, that made it possible to [develop] a far larger overseas trade sector than anyone else, particularly with New World regions that had radically different factor endowments.

     There's something a little bit freakish and fortunate just about the fact that the Americas were there. As Alfred Crosby showed us, Europeans had a lot of advantages, for example [disease and] particular methods of warfare.9

     "Freak" is a little strong, but, I would argue, it took an awful lot of contingency [to cause the Industrial Revolution].

Laichas:     In The Great Divergence, you argue that if you're going to compare industrializations, you should be comparing, England to the Lower Yangzi, not Europe to China. Why?

Pomeranz:     Well, there are a couple of reasons. One is simply a question of scale. China is larger than Europe, both in area and population. Just as Europe has a range that runs from England and Holland to, say, the Balkans, China has a range that runs from the Yangzi delta to, say, Gansu. Bin Wong used to ask the rhetorical question: when did Europe industrialize? If "Europe" includes Albania, the answer is, it still hasn't.10

     It seems to be much more sensible to think that, especially prior to modern transportation, economic growth occurs at nodes: at concentrated areas which, for various reasons, are positioned to do various combinations of things well.

     We need to be very careful about the way we allow certain limited places to stand for something much larger.

     Late one night when I was in the early phases of working on the book, I was reading a chapter in The Cambridge Economic History of Europe, and started to do the sort of thing that only a crazed historian would do. When the chapter mentioned "Europe", I went to the footnotes to look where the evidence came from. In this chapter, 85% of the time, when the noun was "Europe," the footnote referred to England, the Netherlands, or a piece of northern France.

Laichas:     But we're warned about this. We know, as you mentioned earlier, that English and French economic development follow different trajectories. We know that Europe isn't all of a piece. Why do we make that mistake?

Pomeranz:     For one, if you read English, French and maybe German, what places [do you write about]?

     The second thing is, we do have a tendency—and it's not entirely wrong—to read the present back into the past. Some people would say, "Well, of course England isn't all of Europe, I know that. But it's worth spending more pages on England than on, let's say, Poland, which probably has more people than England in the 17th century. It's worth spending more pages on England because England represents where things are going."

     That's not entirely wrong. We are trying to tell very complicated stories., and we don't want to lose readers. So it's not entirely wrong to sometimes focus with a long term story in mind.

     But you'd better be careful about that story. Up until twenty years ago, for instance, you might have told stories about European prosperity which left out the Iberian Peninsula… Well, those stories would look pretty dumb today.

Laichas:     How late do you think an alternate path was possible in the Yangzi?

Pomeranz:     I think it depends on what alternate path you're talking about. I actually have an essay on this in a book that Geoffrey Parker and some other people did on counterfactuals and history. 11 Could the Lower Yangzi have been the first industrial society? I think that was pretty unlikely, given that there weren't any fossil fuels readily accessible.

     But can I imagine a world in which English industrialization came later or in which England had a smaller iron-coal-steel complex, and therefore less ability to project military power? Yes. And in such a world, might East Asian states have had the chance to become familiar with some of the technological changes happening in Europe [before] those changes got rammed down their throats in the 19th century? Might you then have a different history of that region?

     Let's ask the question another way. [Must] we assume that some place was going to industrialize? Or can we take seriously the possibility that [industrialization] might not have happened?

     We could easily have had a world with many Yangzi Deltas—many places with advanced agriculture, lots of commercialization, lots of handicraft industries, but increasingly intense population pressure and [declining] living standards. That doesn't strike me as all that unlikely.

Laichas:     You've highlighted resource and geographic endowments. What about the political setting? 18th century Great Britain was a sovereign state, while the 18th century lower Yangzi Delta was not. How much does this matter?

Pomeranz:     I think it matters a lot.

     The Yangzi delta had these hinterland trading partners that provided it with various primary products in return for the lower Yangzi's light industrial exports. As hinterlands began to fill up and become more densely populated, they created their own light industrial sectors. They stopped shipping so much grain down to the lower Yangzi. They stopped importing as much cloth upriver.

     This created problems for the lower Yangzi. But Beijing likeds it this way. To the extent that the Qing had what we would today call a "development policy", it focused on benefiting backward regions and diversifying them.

     Obviously London was not primarily interested in a development policy that was going to help, let's say, the area that became the American South at the expense of say, Manchester.

     The whole [western European] mercantilist push overseas was rooted in the European system of almost perpetual military competition. This was, in part, a fiscal competition: states had to raise enough cash to prevail in the next war. China didn't face comparable challenges, and had no particular reasons therefore to create the same kinds of partnerships with its merchant classes.

     Now, those partnerships are not necessarily helpful to development within a country. Monopolies are not terribly efficient. But when you project [these partnerships] outwards, leading to an export-oriented pattern of development on two new continents, that's a pretty important.

     So: it matters.

Laichas:     So the Yangzi does not have an overseas hinterland, lacked local coal reserves, and was within an empire whose government pushed economic development on a continental rather than regional scale. Would that be a fair summary?

Pomeranz:     Even more than development on a continental level, I would say stabiltization and the securing of subsistence. The Qing in particular really want to make sure that as many people as possible live what we might call the Confucian good life. The man ploughs, the woman weaves, the household has two sources of income, the woman gets to generate income for the household while staying home and retaining female modesty, and so on.

     The [Qing] Empire is much more concerned with reproducing conditions which make it possible to survive on family farming in ecologically fragile areas like the North China Plain, than they are with helping country's richest region get richer.

     That's not a unreasonable position for a state to take, particularly if you put aside what we now know, which is that it was possible to break through to a whole different level of economic wellbeing. Why should anyone have anticipated that in 1700? Adam Smith didn't anticipate it in the late 18th century, living in the place where it was beginning to happen. He didn't imagine a world of endless growth.

Laichas:     There are scholars who argue that English and perhaps European cultural strengths did more than geography and policy to jumpstart industrial capitalism. What do you make of Joel Molkyr's "invention of invention" or the very dense networks of intellectual exchange that Lisa Jardine has described?12 Do these attributes distinguish England from the lower Yangzi?

Pomeranz:     I think the jury is still out. We just know vastly less about the kinds of intellectual connections that are prevalent in late imperial China. I wouldn't rule out the possibility that there's going to turn out to be some substantial truth to what Joel says: that there really will be nothing comparable in the Lower Yangzi. At this point we don't know enough.

     Certainly, our view of Chinese science is changing pretty rapidly. The older view was that it all sort of stagnated after the 14th century. Now we're finding that while it's not developing in the same ways as European science, there's definitely some interesting stuff going on.

     The other thing I would say is that you have to be careful about how you periodize the Industrial Revolution. In the early stages of the industrial revolution, a lot of people kind of messed around making incremental improvements, often without much scientific knowledge. Take the steam engine, for instance. Sure, you have to know there's such a thing as atmospheric pressure. But lots of people knew that. Most of what you need is more in the way of good metallurgy and so forth, so you can create a boiler chamber that doesn't blow up. You have to have the ability to bore the holes for the pistons very precisely. All of that is important, but none of it is Capital "S" Science.

Laichas:     So it's not basic research and intellectual networks that matter, it's engineering and machine tools.

Pomeranz:     That would be an awful lot of it, yeah.

     Another thing I would say is that until modern chemistry comes along and makes it possible to make synthetics out of coal tar, even the large numbers of scientific and technological improvements that come along don't by themselves solve the Malthusian problem. They don't solve the problem that fuel, food, fiber and building materials all basically come from vegetative growth.

     There's a finite amount of vegetative growth on any given piece of land in a year. There's a finite extent to which you can increase yields per person, unless you suddenly get access to a whole lot more land—or you're able to harvest millions of years of vegetative growth in one fell swoop by, say, mining coal.

     Somehow you had to get through those first couple of generations of the Industrial Revolution before chemistry could relax that constraint. I think in those first few generations, it's fossil fuels and increased land supplies that do the most to relax constraints.

Laichas:     A lot of people would put you in one historical camp, facing off against people like Eric Jones and David Landes.13 Are you comfortable with that? Do you think this conflict is real, exaggerated, or imagined?

Pomeranz:     I think that Landes really is reaffirming an old narrative in which if you don't do things the way the Europeans did it, there's no other path to the modern world—period.

     In his view, Europe is way ahead by the year 1000. You ask, what are Europe's advantages, and Landes says, essentially, everything. On every score, he says, it was better in Europe. So I think he does really represent a fundamentally different school.

     I think Jones is more complicated. While there are certainly significant differences between what I did and what Jones did, I get a sense with Jones that maybe there's more than one way to skin this particular cat.

     Part of my quarrel with someone like Landes is that if all differences point in the direction of European advantage—and I don't think that's empirically true—how would we ever know which differences were the most important?

     I think Jones is more careful about saying, well, here are a whole bunch of different dimensions. Some of them seem to give Europe a big edge, some of them seem a lot smaller, some of them may even cut the other way. I find a lot more in Jones that I can work with. I can say, okay, we disagree on this or that. And this here is an empirical question where we need more research. But I don't get the from Jones that the ballgame is over by the year 1000.

Laichas:     Are you comfortable being understood as a world historian?

Pomeranz:     I think it takes a while to get used to that label. For a scholar of my age—in my case, my late forties—the only "world historians" were, the [Fernand] Braudels and the [William] McNeills.

     You have to think very, very highly of yourself to put yourself in the same class as those guys.

     I used to say that world history had an hourglass shape. At the top there were the McNeill and Braudel folks. At the other end were people who were teaching world history, often at institutions where they couldn't do much research. There was no middle.

     I think that in the last ten or twenty years, the middle has started to fill out. You're getting people at research institutions who don't claim to be the new Braudel, but who are producing solid, peer reviewed, original scholarship of a kind that can be called world history.

     As that middle group expands, it becomes easier to claim that label for yourself without a feeling that you're being presumptuous.

Laichas:     Do you have any reservations about the ways of world history is being defined? As you took on the job of editing the Journal of Global History, is there work that you'd like to see—but don't—under the aegis of "world history"?

Pomeranz:     On the things that aren't finding their way in, I think we haven't done a great job yet of dealing with periods of history [before the Early Modern]. It's not that the work isn't there. Some of it is being done in archaeology departments, for instance. But we're not finding it in world history.

     Someone like [the late] Andrew Sherratt was certainly producing the sort of stuff that world historians should have been embracing as our own.14 Not that I know anyone who is militantly rejecting it. We just haven't made the move to say "Look, this is what we're talking about."

     [I'd like to see] a lot more environmental history. Again, it may not be so much that the work's not being done. It may be that we have a hard time figuring out how to make it our own. You would think world history and environmental history would be a natural fit. Yet, I think that in most world history, the environment is still kind of an afterthought. That's something we need to do better.

     We are behind in creating trans-regional cultural and intellectual history. I think it's just harder to do. I'm not criticizing anybody in particular for not having done it yet. I just think it's hard.

Laichas:     And religion?

Pomeranz:     The same with religion. Which is not to say there aren't people writing histories of Christianity, Islam, Buddhism [and other traditions] which cross regional boundaries. But again, I think that the standard narrative still says "this part of the world is Muslim, this part of the world is Christian, this part of the world is Buddhist" and so on. We don't do as well in thinking about the ways in which those and other religious movements cross these lines.

Laichas:     Is there work that defines itself as "world history" but really shouldn't?

Pomeranz:     I suppose at any journal, inevitably you find stuff coming in you don't want to print. I am surprised sometimes by pieces [submitted to Journal of Global History] where essentially the author claims, "well, the place I study is part of the world—why can't I be in Journal of Global History?"

     [World historians] had reasons—some of them good reasons, some of them not—for keeping the definition of "world history" somewhat vague. We adopted the Big Tent strategy. Generally speaking, I think that's a good thing. But the tent does have to have some boundaries. I see at least some stuff that's basically straight national or local history. A sentence or two says: "other places were of course going through this too." You have to do more than just invoke the existence of transregional comparison. You have to do something with it.

     [At colleges and universities], the issue may be trickier. You want to build world history, but you're almost always hiring somebody who has a specialty in, say, East Asia, South Europe, North America or Latin America.

     You have to be careful. You sometimes have deans and so forth who are attracted to creating a world history position because they think, you know, "this looks an awful lot cheaper than getting an East Asianist and a South Asianist." There is a question of who's going to wind up using whom.

      I obviously believe in world history in all sorts of ways. But I don't want it to become an excuse for saying we don't need regional historians of the non-western world.

Laichas:     How can these tensions be reconciled?

Pomeranz:     I think it's genuinely hard.

     I went through this when I was at a campus—which there's no need to name—which was considering putting together a world history program. The department was disproportionately historians of Western Europe. One of them said "I'm willing to teach a world history course. But if I [do], I won't teach my French history course. Don't you think something's being lost?"

     The answer is that, unless your course is a piece of junk, of course something is being lost.

     I do think, though, that it becomes increasingly important that our students learn to use a world history lens… that they see the historical and methodological things that [are possible] when you're not doing national history. I would not say it's unimportant to offer a France or Brazil survey. But if I have to give up one to get that world history survey—and it need not be the same one every year—I think that's an easy choice.

     When I teach our world history survey, I start out the first day by saying to students, why do anything as insane as the whole world? And then I try to make a case that there are certain things that you gain. I talk to them about the comparative method; I talk to them about long distance connections. Then, through the course of a term, I will often very consciously point out what I'm doing.

     So when I lecture on 19th century urbanization, bouncing around from London to New York to Buenos Aires, I call their attention to that. Look, folks: we're looking at the formation of urban places. We're not in any one continent. In this period, European cities are different in certain ways, so we're talking disproportionately about Europe, but we're not talking only about Europe.

     I contrast that with a more conventional lecture on the Russian Revolution. I say to [my students], this is very different. Here we're going to start and end in one place, and we're not going to talk about any other place. This is a different kind of history. What's gained and what's lost by doing this sort of thing?

Laichas:     So you make the tension explicit.

Pomeranz:     Not every student gets it, and obviously at different levels this works to different degrees. It's going to work better in an undergraduate course at a pretty good university than it is in a 7th grade.

     But I think there is actually a version of it that you could present to 7th graders.

Laichas:     What's at stake when doing world history? What do we stand to gain when we do it well?

Pomeranz:     I think there are lots of things at stake. One point which John Richards used to make, is that the 19th century historians who basically created our discipline were no fools.15 Creating these national narratives and getting everybody to know them was important in getting people to think of themselves as Frenchmen or Spaniards or Americans. If we want global citizens, then [creating] transnational narratives are not a bad way to go. So that's one level on which I think that a lot's at stake: persuading people that they are part of this world.

     Nations aren't going away. People are still going to want national narratives, and for very good reasons. But I think we can help in the crafting of national narratives. That too matters.

     Also, for the foreseeable future, particularly at the advanced grad and undergrad levels, we'll mostly be training historians of France, Mexico, the United States, whatever—more, anyway, than world historians. That's simply because the job market is still structured around those national units.

     But we can train people to frame their questions about those countries in a different way. I think that if we do that, we're doing something that's actually quite useful.

     If we're doing our job well, we're de-provincializing national history.

Laichas:     De-provincializing national history?

Pomeranz:     Yeah. Another point: I think world history goes very well with creating a history that's about everyday life. That may seem weird, since everyday life is lived locally, while world history is global.

     But it does seem to me that one of the challenges we face as teachers is that students often come to us with a notion of history that's really quite narrow. It's high-level political history.

     Some of them find that engaging—and that's great. But many of them just don't. And it's never occurred to them that eating, working, choosing marriage partners, all these other things that they do care about a lot, are also historical.

     A friend of mine—he's an anthropologist by training, but he often teaches history courses, has been known to challenge his students by saying, "If you can come to me from any of your other classes with any generalization about human behavior that I can't find an exception to—where I can't find a society which does something different—you get an A, game over."

     So some of them come back from their Econ class with the basic Economic Man ideas from Econ 101. Some of them come back from psychology classes with what essentially are Freudian ideas about the intrinsic dynamics of families. You know, he never loses the bet. He's always got an exception.

     The point is that virtually all these things that we think of as being "human nature"—not all of them, but nearly all of them—are in fact historical products. That doesn't make them bad, but it does mean that we ought to be studying them in a particular way. If all these things are historical products, then there's some fascinating history out there of how they got to be taken for granted.

Laichas:     What are you working on now?

Pomeranz:     A couple of different things. One is what I hope will be the follow-up volume to Great Divergence, which takes the story down through the 19th and 20th centuries.

     As a first step towards that, I have what I hope is going to be a short book based on a series of lectures I gave at Cambridge last Fall, which are basically an attempt to sketch the economic history of China over the last couple of centuries.

     Those lectures play off of two comparisons. One of them is the old Europe-China, England-Yangzi Delta comparison. The other, which I'm just beginning to get comfortable with, is an India-China, Bengal-Yangzi Delta comparison.

     I also have this long-standing project, that's been partly finished for a long time. It's the history of a particular religious practice—the worship of the goddess of Mount Tai on the North China Plain. It's basically a Chinese story [though] I think it has comparative implications. I think it's important for world historians to remain credible practitioners of their regional specialties.

     Then—I'll use this as a shameless plug—Terry Burke and I have co-edited a collection of essays called The Environment of World History: 1750-2000, which has just been accepted at UC Press, so I hope it'll be between covers sometime in 2008. I think that will help fill certain holes in the literature. We're excited about that.


1 For Dr. Pomeranz's views on contemporary China, see his presentation to the World Bank's 2006 Private Sector Development Forum. This talk is available at:

2 For critical assessments of Great Divergence see for example Angus Maddison, the World Economy: Historical Statistics (Paris: Development Centre of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2003), especially 249-251.

3 Sherman Cochran, now Hu Shih Professor of Chinese History at Cornell University.

4 Jonathan Spence, now Sterling Professor of History at Yale University.

5 For discussions of this work, see James Mahoney and Dietrich Rueschmeyer, Comparative Historical Analysis in the Social Sciences (Cambridge Univerity Press, 2003).

6 Steven E. Landsburg, Armchair Economist: Economics and Everyday Life (New York: Free Press, 1993).

7 Steven C. Topik, now Professor of History, University of California, Irvine

8 N.F.R. Crafts, "Industrial Revolution in England and France: Some Thoughts on the Question 'Why Was England First?'" Economic History Review 30 (1977), 429-441. Reprinted in Joel Mokyr (ed.), The Economics of the Industrial Revolution (Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Allanheld, 1985).

9 See Alfred W. Crosby, The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1972), and Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

10 R. Bin Wong, now Director of the Asia Institute, UCLA.

11 Philip Tetlock, Richard Ned Lebow and Geoffrey Parker (eds), Unmaking the West: "What-if" Scenarios That Rewrite World History (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006).

12 See Joel Mokyr, The Lever of Riches (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992) and Lisa Jardine, Ingenious Pursuits: Building the Scientific Revolution (Boston: Little Brown, 1999).

13 See Eric Jones, The European Miracle: Environments, Economies and Geopolitics in the History of Europe and Asia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981) and David Landes, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor (New York: Norton, 1999).

14 Andrew Sherratt, who died in 2006, for many years taught at Oxford University before moving, shortly before his death in 2006, to the University of Sheffield. For an accessible and exciting introduction to his interest in trans-regional interactions since the Neolithic, see Sherratt's collaborative project, ArchAtlas at Sherritt was best known for his essay "Plough and Pastoralism: Aspects of the Secondary Products Revolution" in Ian Hodder, Glynn Isaac, and Norman Hammond (eds), Pattern of the Past: Studies in Honour of David Clarke (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).

15 John Richards taught history at Duke University for thirty years before his death in August 2007. Though most of his work focused on South Asia, his most recent work, The Unending Frontier: An Environmental History of the Early Modern World (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003) takes a decidedly global perspective.



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